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Gov. Parson said he’d only hire health director who shared ‘Christian values,' stoking criticism

Office of Missouri Governor

Gov. Mike Parson’s comments on Don Kauerauf triggered civil rights complaints from at least one rabbi and several Muslims.

Last Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson responded to one controversy — and set off another.

The Republican governor was angry that his nominee to run the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services, Don Kauerauf, had failed to win Senate approval before the clock ran out on his appointment. Kauerauf had run into opposition from Republican lawmakers who suggested he supported mask and vaccine mandates, along with abortion rights.

In a press release, Parson insisted Kauerauf’s conservative bona fides were not in doubt. “Don is a public health expert that is on record opposing masking requirements and COVID-19 vaccine mandates,” he wrote. “He is outspokenly pro-life and morally opposed to abortion.”

But the release continued. “Missourians know that I share these beliefs and would not have nominated someone who does not share the same Christian values,” the statement read.

The suggestion that Parson would only be open to Cabinet members with “Christian values” didn’t sit well with some observers. Rabbi Daniel Bogard of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis announced he was filing a complaint with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Some Muslims in the region said on Twitter they would do the same.

“It’s pretty clear looking at the governor's senior staff, looking at the governor's nominees for various positions, that this has been a policy for a while, that the governor very much surrounds himself and fills Missouri government with Christians, particularly white Christians most of the time,” Bogard said. “But to hear him say this out loud, to say it overtly, made it just so clear that folks like me — Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists — that we really aren't welcome in Missouri as full citizens or qualified to be in his government because we don't worship his Christian deity. It really does feel like a genuine abridgement of my rights.”

John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion, holding a joint appointment in the Washington University Law School and the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. He called Parson’s comments “troubling and divisive.” But, he predicted the Department of Justice would not be inclined to touch the issue. “I see very little likelihood of this taking on legal or constitutional significance,” he said. “I think this is really unfortunate and divisive politically, but I don't see much of a legal argument here.”

Inazu acknowledged that a typical employer, one without a faith-based mission like a Christian college, could run into trouble for comments like Parson’s. But, he noted, the standard is different for a political figure like Parson.

Inazu noted that private employers couldn’t get away with saying that they planned to hire only Black women, as President Joe Biden suggested on the campaign trail for a future Supreme Court vacancy. “Political actors generally have more leeway to say things like this or other kinds of restrictions they might impose on appointments,” he said.

Inazu said Parson’s comments are nevertheless troubling. He noted that the U.S. Constitution holds that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

“The framers of the Constitution were reacting to the Church of England, [which]that had these tests for political office, for military service, for academic leadership,” he said. “And right from the beginning of our country, we decided that's not a good thing, and we don't want to prevent people from having political and other leadership because of their religious beliefs.”

Inazu suggested Parson was trying to ingratiate himself with a segment of his supporters. “He would have been on a much better footing if he just had used the same ‘conservative values’ instead of ‘Christian values,’” he noted.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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Sarah Fenske
Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis. She won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her work in Phoenix exposing corruption at the local housing authority. She also won numerous awards for column writing, including multiple first place wins from the Arizona Press Club, the Association of Women in Journalism (the Clarion Awards) and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. From 2015 to July 2019, Sarah was editor in chief of St. Louis' alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times. She and her husband, John, are raising their two young daughters and ill-behaved border terrier in Lafayette Square.
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